Courant staff writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Marines don't smile.

It's strength they want to show now, as they stand
in this field of white marble markers. Strength for
Cpl. Jordan Pierson. Strength for his family.
Utterly unruffled.

So they watch without expression as their friend's
casket is prepared for the grave. They stand, their
mirror-polished shoes on Arlington National
Cemetery grass, the brass buttons on their dress
blues shining, each face a solemn mask. The way
they were taught.

``Marines don't smile,'' one of the Marines from
Charlie Company had said that morning at the

Not that there's any cause to smile here, in one of
the country's most somber places, where markers
bearing the names of the latest conflicts have filled
new swaths of land in the five years since 9/11.
The Marines stand behind a crowd from
Connecticut and greet the rifle volleys with stoic
faces. They don't flinch at the 24 notes of taps,
which wrench a fresh round of sobs from Pierson's
friends and family.

Most of the Marines in the group volunteered to
drive more than 300 miles for this hourlong
ceremony. They didn't have to be here. But it was
an easy choice. Of course they want to see this to
So, these Marine reservists from the
Plainville-based unit -- most of them kept back
from the company's deployment to Iraq for
medical reasons -- stand as symbols and reminders
for Pierson's people. This is what Pierson was,
their quiet presence shouts. He was part of
something serious and had won a place in a
fraternity that makes a try at transcending death.
The Marines, who don't smile.

But of course, they do.

The day before, on Tuesday, a corporal and three
lance corporals climb into a borrowed military van:
Cpl. Terry Hanechak, 25, from West Springfield;
Lance Cpl. Roberto Diaz, 22, from New Britain;
Lance Cpl. James Serafino, 22, from Stamford; and
Lance Cpl. Gregory Duplessie, 25, from

Except for fresh haircuts, tight to their scalps, they
look like any other young men, in T-shirts and
shorts or jeans, earrings glinting in Diaz's ears.
They adjust the stereo to find a compromise:
classic rock, while Diaz plugs into the hip-hop on
his laptop. They are young guys going on a trip.
And in each other's easy company, they smile.

These four are some of the Charlie Company
Marines in a strange limbo. They were called for
war and ready to serve. But Hanechak's eardrum
blew from an infection. Diaz's knee gave out.
Duplessie suffered recurring bouts of tonsillitis.
Serafino had a herniated disk in his back.

None of these is a grave illness, but each was
enough to keep the Marine from getting medical
clearance to go to Fallujah with the unit.

So they've watched from afar. They've seen friends
come home in caskets. They feel guilty about not
being over there with their comrades, exorcising the
demons of 9/11. And they are anxious to do
whatever they can on this end. So they are driving
south through the Atlantic states, every mile taking
them closer to the remains of the young corporal
shot to death in Fallujah and about to be buried
with military honors.

The gravity of their mission doesn't muffle them.
They talk and laugh about girls and cars. The van is
a stage for the rehashing of exploits, from military
training exercises to nocturnal adventures.

Delaware becomes Maryland, then D.C., and
finally the van is passing the vast Pentagon and the
green of Arlington National Cemetery, beside
which the four Marines find their hotel and join
others from Charlie Company who have made the
trip. Through the windows of the hotel, they can
see distant fields of the cemetery, salted with

As evening comes, the Marines descend on
Washington, testing the engine of a rented Cadillac
and moving wherever the night pulls them.

At the first stop, it's a round of whiskeys. "To

Duplessie, Diaz and Serafino stop at a nightclub,
but the bouncers won't let Duplessie in because
he's wearing shorts. He doesn't want to hold his
buddies back, so he spends $100 buying the pants
off a guy outside. The two swap pants for shorts
in the street.

The next day's somber duty doesn't cast a shadow
on the Marines' frenzied night. They know Pierson
would be next to them if he could be. The
21-year-old from Milford could keep up with
anybody, they know. And with Pierson now only
a few miles away, it is their final night on the town
with him.

Wednesday, the day of Pierson's ceremony,
Arlington -- a machine of funerary efficiency -- is
planning for five burials.

The Charlie Company Marines have prepared
themselves meticulously, checking each emblem
and ribbon, rolling the lint from the backs of each
other's uniforms. They look official, even though
they will be only guests today. Arlington has its
own honor guards, the most highly trained in the

The Marines drive into the cemetery, unsure of
where they are supposed to be or what they
should be doing. They pull over as a hearse and
procession approach.

``Should we salute?'' Serafino asks, lifting his
white-gloved hand to his brow.

``You don't salute in a vehicle,'' Hanechak answers.

Serafino lowers his hand as the hearse passes.
"Are you sure?''

They have conducted their own funeral ceremonies
back home, thick with ritual and tradition, but this
is the pinnacle of such things, and there are a lot of
rules. When Pierson's ceremony is to begin, and a
crowd gathers, some of the Marines aren't sure
what part to play. In the end, their only job is to
stand and watch.

Pierson's ``ashes to ashes, and dust to dust'' join
more than 260,000 others here. As the folded flag
is passed to his parents, the family asks for a
moment alone with the casket. The crowd

The Marines congregate around a nearby
headstone. "Brian Scott Letendre, Capt, U.S.
Marine Corps,'' it reads.

Letendre, an active-duty officer whose family lived
in New Britain, was with Charlie Company and
went to Iraq, where a suicide car bomb killed him in
Ramadi in May. The Marines give him their
white-gloved salutes and crouch to touch the stone.

``Marines don't cry,'' Duplessie will say later.
But the day has struck him deeply. He watched all
the people weep for Pierson, all these people who
won't ever be quite the same. Then he looked up
and saw the stones in eye-bending rows to the
horizon, all exactly alike, all marking this same
impossible burden thousands of times over. He
could hardly imagine the pain this place had

Marines don't cry. But, of course, they do. If it
happens, it's better in private or with each other,
they say. As Diaz confesses, when he stood his
late-night turns at watch beside Pierson's open
casket days earlier, he shed tears that the demand
of his parade-rest stance wouldn't allow him to

At this famed burial ground, the white markers are
moving in a slow march across the last open spaces
in this famous burial ground.

"There's a lot more ground left in this cemetery,''
Serafino observes.

Hanechak's answer: ``There's always another war
to fight.''

The Marines return to the hotel and shed their
dress uniforms, packing them carefully away for
next time.

On the dark ride home, they'll recall every detail,
every step and movement of Pierson's professional
honor guard, as if remembering the highlights of a
World Series game. The graceful steps. The
astonishing strength of each pallbearer's
one-handed hold on the casket. The synchronized
movements of their hands as they folded the flag.
"They were pretty tight,'' Duplessie will say. "We
gotta learn that.''

But first, they decide to make a stop at a
monument. After losing their way in the tangle of
D.C.'s roads and quarreling like brothers, they pull
up to the Marine Corps War Memorial -- the
bronze statue of the raising of the U.S. flag above
Iwo Jima in World War II.

In that battle more than 60 years ago, Charlie
Company was there, on the right flank of the
invasion force. The latest Charlie Company
Marines stare at the larger-than-life figures,
towering over them, frozen in their efforts to fly
the flag.

But the young Marines don't linger. They have to
get on the road. Another Marine from Connecticut
has died in Iraq. He'll be needing them.